How did James, Haley, Scotty, and Lauren choose their songs this week? What was it like working with Lady Gaga? Did the unfamiliar songbook of Leiber and Stoller stymie the contestants? In our ongoing series, American Idol vocal coach and arranger Debra Byrd and associate music director and arranger Michael Orland answered these questions and more while discussing last night’s Top 4 performance show with EW. For a decade, Byrd and Orland have been on the front lines with the contestants, from Hollywood Week to the grand finale in May. The two work with the contestants on their respective songs, helping them shine on the Idol stage and in front of a national TV audience. Check out their insights below:
JAMES DURBIN — “Don’t Stop Believin'” (Journey)
MICHAEL ORLAND: I know that the producers always take into account who has gone first before, who’s gone last before. They’re really fair about that. And they also try to do it so it’s a good show. I think it’s just how it worked out [with James opening and closing the show]. I’m kind of bummed that the Lady Gaga and Leiber & Stoller songs weren’t first. I think they wanted to save Lady Gaga for whatever reason, but I think the songs that meant something to [the contestants] were on a whole a lot better performances. But hey, what do I know?
“Don’t Stop Believin’” happens to be one of my favorite all time songs, even when it got overused and abused on Glee. James wanted to stick to the true original arrangement, he didn’t want to do anything really different to it, I think out of respect, because he just loves that song and Journey so much. As soon as he found out a week or two before that that he had to find a song that has meaning to it, there was no choosing between two songs for him. That was it, that was his song.
HALEY REINHART — “Earth Song” (Michael Jackson)
DEBRA BYRD: She wanted the choir, because it’s a big song and she thought three back up singers would not give her the feel that she would like — the subject matter is weighty, she knew that she needed extra voices. I have to laugh [about Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez’s criticisms]. I sing a song about what inspires [me], and you say that song isn’t right for [me]. That’s just a bit odd. But hey, that’s the whole thing about this TV show — it’s all subjective. The interpretation I take from that is the judges see her in a specific light and they didn’t see her in that light. That’s what I got out of it.
It’s tough, especially when there are four [contestants], and you sing your face off, and you’re the one that’s told, “Ehh, everybody was great except you.” Her skin is getting tougher, and I have to say we have a lot of talks about this. It’s a learning process for her as it would be for anyone who’s going through that kind of thing. It’s not like she folds and crumbles. It becomes a fighter’s mentality and I applaud for her it. Because you either do that or you die. Those are your choices. And she has no plans of dying on the vine.
SCOTTY McCREERY — “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” (Alan Jackson)
MO: Scotty wanted to do that song weeks before [during the Top 7 songs from the 21st century week], and the publishers had not cleared it. I think that they called up again to say, “You know, Scotty wants to do this.” The music publishers get to know the contestants and they become fans. He just loves that song. I think he did [have a second choice], but I don’t remember what it was. When we were in the studio on Friday, working with Rodney [Jerkins], he and I were in the booth trying to figure out some stuff. That whole idea of him changing the melody on the second chorus, those all came from him. He really was so proud of himself for coming up with that.
LAUREN ALAINA — “Anyway” (Martina McBride)
MO: Two weeks ago when those storms hit where she lived, she was absolutely devastated. She was freaked out that people lost their power, she was freaked out that the storm hit her town, so when she was thinking about doing “Anyway,” she was like, “You know what? I have to do this.” The lyrics all pertain to her. When we initially got her first edit back from the studio and they cut the third verse — it was just the first verse and then the chorus and like the little instrumental thing and then the last chorus again — she called me up and she was not happy. She was like, “I really want to do that whole last verse about, ‘Even if they forget you sang the song, sing it anyway.'” I called the producer, and I was like, “Even if it’s a little longer, she’s gotta get that in, that’s really important to her lyrically.”
She sang that song a half [an octave] step higher than Martina McBride. She really pushed herself [vocally]. When she hit it at band rehearsal the day before, it made her really tear up. I literally was up on stage holding her hand, making her just pace back and forth and not think about the notes, just think about what you’re singing. She hit it and at the end of it she broke down because it was just moving for everybody. I was really proud of her.
HALEY REINHART — “I (Who Have Nothing)”
DB: She wanted to sing it, period. It wasn’t hard for her [to choose a song]. She said, “That song,” immediately. She said, “I know Jordin [Sparks] sang it, and I know she did a great job.” And I said, “And that’s all you have to do. You’re totally different seasons, your voices are different, and it’s the Leiber & Stoller catalogue and that’s one of their wonderful songs so somebody’s going to sing that song.”
In past seasons, when a mentor comes through, there’s so much information that’s given to the contestants, they don’t remember a lot of it. So I like to reinforce what the mentor says, because a lot of times the mentor reinforces what I say. I reminded Haley that Lady Gaga said, “I’d like you to sing this song as if you’re psycho.” It made perfect sense. That means it doesn’t become lyrical and romantic, which is where Haley leans. When she first came to American Idol, she was leaning toward the romantic side of her phrasing, the romantic side of her song choices. And for Lady Gaga to give her that advice was pure gold. Golden. So that means we worked on her phrasing, as opposed to being very romantic. [Sings fluidly] “I, who have noooothiiing.” [Sings haltingly] “I [pause] who have [pause] nothing.” Something that simple. Spaces in it as opposed to making it so romantic. Haunting. It’s that love that’s lost.
SCOTTY McCREERY — “Young Blood”
MO: I don’t think Leiber & Stoller songs were easy for anybody. Because you either sing an Elvis song, or an obscure one of their [other] songs. Or you sing “On Broadway,” which nobody really wanted. I love their songs, but the contestants, because of their lack of knowledge of them, really struggled on it. It was just us sitting in the room with Scotty playing through a bunch of songs. When he heard the recording where the guy goes [getting progressively deeper] “Looka there, looka there, looka there” — just from those few spoken lines, he was like, “Oh yeah this is the one for me.” He did want to maybe do an Elvis song, but he had just come off of doing an Elvis song. That’s enough.
LAUREN ALAINA — “Trouble”
MO: When we went into the session with Lady Gaga, we had just been working on going through [multiple Elvis] songs. For her it was like, “Do I do ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ or one of those famous Elvis songs, or do I do something like ‘Trouble’?” So we did show her online that on season 4, Carrie Underwood did that song. So for her to hear somebody more current doing it and actually a girl doing it, she related to it a little more. She was still stuck on saying the word “evil,” so she had her session with Lady Gaga who said, “Y’know you’re playing a character, you’re singing a song, you gotta have that attitude.” I thought she pulled it off. I just think she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s evil and she kept thinking about that all day, all week, that’s all she was thinking about. But I think she did a great job.
JAMES DURBIN — “Love Potion No. 9”
MO: For Leiber & Stoller, he definitely had a harder time picking. He didn’t know which road to go. He didn’t even really know “Love Potion No. 9.” I had come up with some different arrangements for him before we went and had our session with Lady Gaga, and then Lady Gaga kind of changed it up. She was like, “You really gotta do that rock thing,” and she was making me bang the crap out of the piano.
I got a kick out of watching her with the contestants, I think more than the contestants did. I think [James] was a little uncomfortable, however, I loved that she zeroed in on so many things. She nailed him [on], Hey, you need to move from your hips there. She just got up and helped him; it probably was uncomfortable at the time, but I bet something good will come out of that.